BOYNTON BEACH, FL (AP) The state plans to start $1.5 billion in projects designed to speed up Everglades restoration, including building reservoirs that could ease suburban flooding and environmental damage from hurricanes, officials said Thursday, Oct. 14.
The projects will improve the flow of freshwater into Biscayne and Florida bays and protect rain-swollen Lake Okeechobee from damaging storm water.
“This is really important for the long-term survival of an American treasure, the Everglades,” Gov. Jeb Bush said. “What we’re doing here today is going to help us preserve more than 60 endangered species.... This work will also replenish water supplies to millions of people in South Florida and it will provide flood protection.”
He detailed the plans at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge west of Boynton Beach.
The plans would be part of the 30-year, $8.4 billion federal-state program to restore some of the natural water flow through the sensitive ecosystem that once stretched uninterrupted from a chain of lakes near Orlando to Florida Bay.
Congress has yet to fund the full restoration, partly due to criticism of changes Florida made last year to water pollution laws. The state will pay for the new projects by borrowing the money and selling certificates similar to bonds. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would later reimburse the state.
“We will save money because the escalating costs of construction would be a higher number than interest costs,” Bush said.
Don Jodrey, an attorney for the U.S. Interior Department, said federal agencies had been discussing the changes for months and recognized that the state can simply move more quickly –– particularly with approving the money.
The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, whose members live in the Everglades, and some environmental groups said they were skeptical about the new plans because of the lack of public input and the potential for the state to ignore environmental requirements.
“We don’t know the details. They’ve been meeting in private for six months, picking projects and prioritizing them. The secretive nature of this is something we don’t feel fits into Everglades restoration,” tribe spokeswoman Joette Lorion said.
Jonathan Ullman with the Sierra Club said the new projects would be meaningless because of the state’s changes to water pollution laws. The changes put off the cleanup of phosphorus, a nutrient found in farm and lawn fertilizer that kills the algae at the base of the Everglades food chain.
“The big issue here is we don’t have clean water,” Ullman said. “We just think it’s tremendously hypocritical that they’re having an event here at a wildlife refuge that’s going to be destroyed by Jeb Bush’s decision to delay phosphorous cleanup.”
Ullman and others criticized the announcement’s timing, less than three weeks before voters decide whether to re-elect the governor’s brother, President Bush.
Still, some environmental groups lauded the plans and the new way to pay for them.
“This is an instance where the federal government has not been able to come up with the money. If anything, it makes up for a shortcoming of the federal government,” said Eric Draper, director of policy for Audubon of Florida. “This is what we’ve been asking for for several years. There is so much development pressure in South Florida and anything that speeds up the land acquisition and the projects, we can’t argue with.”
The four hurricanes to slam the state this season emphasized the need to better protect suburban areas and the environment from flooding and excessive storm water. The new projects would build a reservoir along the Caloosahatchee River, the St. Lucie Canal and the North New River canal. They also would help improve water quality in South Florida by reducing harmful water discharges to coastal estuaries.
“What does this mean for the Everglades and the people of Florida?” said Nicolas Gutierrez, chairman of the South Florida Water Management District’s board. “It means earlier benefits for the environment, along with earlier flood control, and water supply flexibility for water managers.”